Spring Break next week for my class. Still work to be done!
"The Mole had been working very hard all the morning,
spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters;
then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of
whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of
whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms.
Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around
him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of
divine discontent and longing." - Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, Ch. 1
Speech at Wesleyan College in 1988 by William Zinsser which will take a few minutes to read but it is rich.His weekly blog at The American Scholar is here.
The sportswriter Red Smith was one of my heroes. Not
long before his own death he gave the eulogy at the funeral of another writer,
and he said, 'dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.' Living is the trick.
that's what we're all given one chance to do well. One reason I admire Red Smith
was that he wrote about sports for 55 years, with elegance and humor, without
ever succumbing to the pressure, which ruined many sportswriters, that he ought
to be writing about something 'serious.' Red Smith found in sportwriting exactly
what he wanted to do and what he deeply loved doing. And because it was right
for him he said more important things about American values than many writers
who wrote about serious subjects--so seriously that nobody could read them.
Another story. When I was teaching at Yale, the poet Allen Ginsberg came to talk
to my students, and one of them asked him: 'was thee a point at which you
consciously decided to become a poet?' And Ginsberg said: 'It's wasn't quite a
choice; it was a realization. I was 28 and I had a job as a market researcher.
One day I told my psychiatrist that what I really wanted to do was to quit my
job and just write poetry. And the psychiatrist said, 'why not?' And I said,
'Well, what would the American Psychoanalytic Association say?' And he said,
'There's no party line.' So I did. We'll never know how bit a loss that was for
the field of market research. But it was a big moment for American poetry.
There's no party line. Good advice. You can be your own party line. If living is
the trick, what's crucial for you is to do something that makes the best use of
your own gifts and your own individuality. There's only one you. Don't ever let
anyone persuade you that you're somebody else. My father was a businessman. His
name was William Zinsser, and he had a business called William Zinsser &
Company that had been founded by his grandfather, also named William Zinsser,
who came to New York from Germany in 1849 with a formula for making shellac. He
built a little house and a little factory way uptown at what is now 59th Street
and Eleventh Avenue. I have an old photograph of those two buildings, all alone
in an open field full of rocks that slopes down to the Hudson River. That
business stayed there until 15 years ago--a 125 years. It's very rare for a
business to stay in the same family on the same block in mid-Manhattan for a
century, and I can assure you that it builds a sense of family continuity. One
of the most vivid memories of my boyhood is how much my father loved his
business. He had a passion for quality; he hated anything second-rate. Seeing
how much he loved his work and how good he was at it, I learned very early what
has been a guiding principal of my life: that what we want to do we will do
well. The opposite, however, is also true: what we don't want to do we won't do
well--and I had a different dream. I wanted to be a newspaperman. Unfortunately,
my father had three daughters before he had me. I was his only son. He named me
William Zinsser and looked forward to the day when I'd join him in the
business.(In those Dark Ages the idea that daughters could rn a company just as
well as sons, or better, was still 20 years off). It was a ready-made career for
me--lifelong security--and maybe I also owed it to my mother and my sisters to
carry on that hundred-year-old family tradition. But when the time came to
choose, I knew that that just wasn't the right thing fo rme to do, and I went
looking for a newspaper job, and got one with the New York Herald Tribune, and I
loved it from the start. Of course, that was a moment of great pain for my
father--and also for me. But my father never tried to change my mind. He saw
that I was happy, and he wished me well in my chosen work. That was by far the
best gift I ever received, beyond price or value--partly, of course, because it
was an outright gift of love and confidence, but mainly because it freed me from
having to fulfill somebody else's expectations, which were not the right ones
for me. The Herald Tribune at that time was the best written and best edited
newspaper in America.The older editors on that paper were the people who gave me
the values that I've tried to apply to my work ever since, whatever that work
has been. They were custodians of the best. When they made us rewrite what we
had written and rewritten, it wasn't only for our own good; it was for the
honorableness of the craft. But the paper began to lose money, and the owners
gradually cheapened their standards in an effort to get new readers (which they
therefore couldn't get), and suddenly it was no longer a paper that was fun to
work for, because it was no longer the paper I had loved. So on day I just quit.
By then I was married and had a one-year-old daughter, and when I came home and
told my wife that I had quit she said, 'what are you going to do now?' which I
thought was a fair question. And I said, 'I guess I'm a freelance writer.'
And that's what I was, for the next eleven years. It's a life full of risk: the
checks don't arrive as often as the bills, or with any regularity. But those 11
years were the broadest kind of education; no other job could have exposed me to
so many areas of knowledge. Also: In those eleven years I never wrote anything
that I didnt' want to write. I'd like you to remember that. You don't have to do
unfulliflling work, or work that diminishes you. You don't have to work for
people you don't respect. You're bright enough to figure out how to do work that
you do want to do, and how to work for people you do want to work for.Near the end of the '60s my wife said she thought it might be interesting to
live somewhere besides New York and see what that was like. Well, to suggest to
a fourth-generation New Yorker that there's life outside New York is heresy. But
I began to discuss the idea with friends, and one of them said, 'you know,
change is a tonic.' I didn't know that. I was afraid of change; I think most
people are. But I seized on the phrase 'change is a tonic' and it gave me the
energy to go ahead. I had always wanted to teach writing: to try to give back
some of the things I had learned. So I started sending letters to colleges all
over the country--big colleges, small colleges, colleges nobody had ever heard
of, experimental colleges tha I actually went and visited; one was in a redwood
forest in California and one seemed to be in a swamp in Florida--asking if they
had some kind of place for me. And they didn't, because I was not an academic--I
only had a BA degree, like the one you'll have in about five minutes--and it was
very discouraging. But finally one thing led to another. It always does.
If you talk to enough people about your hopes and your dreams, if you poke down
enough roads and keep believing in yourself, sooner or later a circle will
connect. You make your own luck. Well, one thing led to another, and one day I
got a call from a professor at Yale who said he would take a chance and let me
teach an experimental writing course for one term (by the way, that was almost
two years after I had started sending all those letters). And on that slender
thread we sold our apartment in New York and moved to New Haven, a city we had
never seen before, and started a new life. Yale was totally generous to me,
though I was a layman from out of nowhere--a journalist, god forbid. I was
allowed to initiate a nonfiction writing course, which the Yale English
department later adopted, and I was also allowed to be master of one of Yale's
residential colleges. So those were rich years for me--years of both teaching
and learning--because they were unlike anything I had done before. Now the fact
that Yale let me do all this is the reason I'm telling you the story. I didn't
fit any academic pattern. But finally, being different was not a handicap. Never
be afraid to be different. Don't assume that people you'd like to work for have
defined their needs as narrowly as you think they have--that they know exactly
who they want. What any good executive is looking for is general intelligence,
breadth, originality, imagination, audacity, a sense of history, a sense of
cultural context, a sense of wonder, a sense of humor, far more than he or she
is looking for a precise fit. America has more than enough college graduates
every year who are willing to go through life being someone else's precise fit.
What we need are men and women who will dare to break the mold of tired
thinking--who just won't buy somebody saying, 'we've always done it this way.
This way is good enough.' Well, obviously it's not good enough or the country
wouldn't be in the mess it's in. I don't have to tell yo all the areas where
this wonderful country is not living up to its best dreams: Poverty. Inequality.
Injustice. Debt. Illiteracy. Health care. Day care. Homelessness. Pollution.
Arms-spending that milks us of the money that should be going into
life-affirming work. There's no corner of American life that doesn't need
radically fresh thinking. Don't shape yourself to a dumb job; shape the job to
your strengths and your curiosity and your ideals. I've told you this story of
my life for whatever pieces of it you may have wanted to grab as it went by...
If I had to sum up why my work has been interesting it's because I
changed the direction of my life every eight or nine years and never did--or
continued to do--what was expected. I didn't go into the family business; I
didn't stay at the Herald Tribune; I didn't stay in New York. And I
didn't stay at Yale. In 1979 I made a resume, like every Yale senior (they
showed me how to do it--how to make it look nice), and went job-hunting in New
York, and got a job with the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was still another new
field for me, and in many ways those eight years were the most interesting years
of all. So don't become a prisoner of any plans and dreams except your own best
plans and dreams. Don't assume that if you don't do what some people seem to be
insisting that you do, in this goal-obsessed and money-obsessed and
security-obsessed nation, it's the end of the world. It's not the end of the
world. As my experience with my father proves, something very nourishing can
happen--a blessing, a form of grace. Be ready to be surprised by grace. And be
very wary of security as a goal. It may often look like life's best prize.
Usually it's not....For you, I hope today will be the first of many
separations that will mean the putting behind you of something you've done well
and the beginning of something you'll do just as well, or better. Keep
separating yourself from any project that's not up to your highest standards of
what's right for you--and for the broader community where you can affect the
quality of life: your home, your town, your children's schools, your state, your
country, your world. If living is the trick, live usefully; nothing in your life
will be as satisfying as making a difference in somebody else's life. Separate
yourself from cynics and from peddlers of despair. Don't let anyone tell you it
won't work. Men and women, women and me, of the Wesleyan Class of 1988: There's
no party line. You make your own luck. Change is a tonic. One thing leads to
another. Living is the trick. Thank you.
Did you know that Arthur Quiller-Couch's daughter , Foy Felicia, was the inspiration for RATTY in The Wind in the Willows?! Kenneth Grahame inscribed the first edition to her. Grahame's son Alastair or " Mouse" strong willed character was the base for Toad. The book is the stories he told him at bedtime.
Anyone know if Charlotte Mason read this book? (1908) Got to get on a Google search....
Friday had wings as I looked at the Spring Arts Festival (Palustris Festival) in Pinehurst, Southern Pines area to see what was going on. The trees in Southern Pines were "yarn bombing" which created such conversations!
What propelled me out of the house and onto the road was a lecture by Vivian Jacobson who worked with Marc Chagall for the last 11 years of his life. This time she was speaking on the Reconciliation Windows at St. Stephens Church in Mainz, Germany. By the time she was finished , I wanted to go see the light shine through the blue of those windows.
Saturday, we looked at old quilts and handwork at the Shaw House. One room had quilts that were buried during the Civil War. ( I learned something new!) So we popped into a new quilting store. Got to the new CHEESE shop which has all local homemade cheese. We grabbed a baquette and some cheese from Chapel Hill. Nothing could be finer!
My class started Lewis' The Four Loves. Have you read it? They seem to be stopped by sentences. "Mrs. B. , I had to read this sentence over and over to finally get what it meant." Me too. I have to follow some of the sentences closely like my cat watches an ant out on the back deck.
These students are thinking. So I'm thinking that is a very good thing. I put them in groups of two to discuss the early chapters. They went all over my back deck and yard. You know summer is here on this first day of Spring. I was HOT.
Also, they are practicing Lewis' style of writing with their own Lost Chapter of Herodotus. ( Xmas and Christmas from God in the Dock ) You know sometimes class needs to be fun!
Book Club friends were decked out in GREEN and gathered for an Irish Breakfast this morning at Julie's. She
loves EVERYTHING Irish. We had Irish bangers, Green Deviled Eggs, Irish
Soda Bread, Fruit and Irish Breakfast tea. We read poems. Here is the
one I love by Seamus Heaney: read by him
St. Kevin and the Blackbird
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
and Lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing's imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Those grandchildren already .. ( this is the Year of Weddings and my oldest with his wife are working/ finishing up Grad degree/ CPA exam) .... I would make some of these from a beautiful knitting/ quilting store in SOHO:
Lots of other Easter IDEAS here. May get ahead so I'm ready!
Many, many numbers on my TO DO list were scratched through: Narrations graded. Tests printed off for tomorrow. A student's recommendation letter. Tax information with my husband done. A walk. Son on Spring Break got the grass cut. It smells like summer!
I am doing LETTERS to HOME to the Brooklyn Art Museum. I lost the information that came in the mail. Alas, an email answered to see the word RULES. So thankful that the size is 5x7 instead of 8x11. Handwritten.
I can do that. Very well.
I have lots to say to my childhood home on Long Island, NY that housed 8 children , 2 parents, a dog , and had a swimming pool and tennis court. I walked to church. I walked "downtown" to get candy in the summers for campouts in our backyard. We played in the acres, climbing the trees, making houses from the fallen leaves, and sledding down the iced hills. I walked to primary and elementary school. The high school was 7th -12th. I took a bus that stopped right at the road in front of my house. For one year. Then, my parents divorced and I moved south.